All-or-nothing thinking is a common thought trap that sets us up for disappointment and failure. Challenging this mindset can build mental strength and resilience instead. Our Head Strong columnist Kimberley Wilson explains…
A few years ago, a friend of mine went on an extreme diet. She paid an eye-watering amount of money to exchange her usual food for pre-packaged shakes and soups. I, as you might imagine, reminded her that such an approach was, by definition, unsustainable – but she was determined. She was going to do the diet and she was going to do it ‘perfectly’. I remember she called me one afternoon for a chat when she was stuck on the motorway because of heavy snow. She told me she had been there for nearly three hours and she was starving. There were some Babybel in the car (snacks for her daughter) but she refused to eat one because it would ‘break the diet’. My heart broke on another occasion when she told me that she refused to have a slice of her daughter’s birthday cake. Instead, she put it in the freezer to have in six months…when the diet was finished. However, this isn’t a conversation about crash diets. Rather, I want to talk to you about all-or-nothing thinking and why it is such a disaster for your wellbeing.
GO BIG OR GO HOME?
All-or-nothing thinking is one of the most common thinking traps we fall into. In this state of mind we split the world into polar opposites - win or lose, pass or fail, sink or swim. One reason we do this is because it creates a sense of simplicity and neatness in an otherwise confusing and messy world. By imagining there are only two options the way forward seems much clearer. In my friend’s case, instead of the (admittedly difficult) task of working on her relationship with food, she just had to only eat exactly what was on the plan, and if she did that she would be ‘winning’. But it meant sacrificing important family moments and enjoyable social events along the way.
So, while dichotomous thinking promises simplicity, in truth, this way of approaching problems is deeply limiting and pushes us into seeing the world in unrealistic extremes. All-or-nothing thinking makes nuance and balance impossible, and leaves you feeling discouraged if you don’t do things ‘perfectly’. Worryingly, all-or-nothing thinking is also associated with depression and anxiety, so it’s important that we try to identify it as early as possible – and that starts with knowing the signs.
CAUGHT IN A TRAP
What are the clues that you might be stuck in an all-or-nothing thinking trap? Often the clearest indication is a harsh or condemning response to anything less than perfection, particularly when combined with words such as: always, never, everyone, failure, useless and cant. Some examples below:
• I missed a workout, I’m such a failure
• I didn’t get a second date, I’ll never find someone
• Other people are coping better than me. Why am I so useless?
These words and phrases are powerful; they promote a mindset in which our skills and abilities are fixed and the outcome is already determined. When it comes to tackling important problems or trying new things, this attitude can be your downfall. If you’ve already decided that you’ll never be able to do it, why would you bother continuing to try? In that case, maybe you don’t try, or you give up. In this way, all-or-nothing thinking undermines the growth process and keeps you stuck.
FLIP THE SCRIPT
One simple, but effective way of challenging your all-or-nothing thinking is to ask yourself ‘Would I say this to someone I care about who was trying to do something difficult?’ If your friend had a bad first date would you tell them, ‘Yeah, you’re never going to find anyone’? If they didn’t get the job, would you put your arm around their shoulder and whisper, ‘I guess you’re always gonna be a failure’? No? I hope not.
More than likely, you would remind them of how tough it is to make big changes, how setbacks are to be expected, how courageous they are for trying, and encourage them to keep going. Remember that you are human and deserving of the same basic kindness as everyone else. Try writing out what you would say to a friend and then reading it back to yourself.
Crucially, remind yourself that process is everything; that you get stronger – mentally and physically – with repeated effort. Pyramids were built one block at a time. You can’t control the outcome, you can only control the effort that you make, so credit yourself for making the effort. Take a deep breath and try again.
Finally, all-or-nothing thinking is often habitual, which means that changing it can take a bit of time. So go easy on yourself as you try to challenge this thinking trap. You will be rewarded for this effort by cultivating a kinder, less punishing relationship with yourself, which in turn will make you more mentally resilient. The less time you spend beating yourself up for not being perfect, the more energy you have to focus on working towards your goals.
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Chartered psychologist Kimberley Wilson is our Head Strong columnist, one of our resident experts from the Strong Women Collective and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain. She’s passionate about caring for our mental health through evidence-based nutrition and psychological therapy – and loves discussing how you can train your mindset to become stronger in body and mind.